Review: War Horse (tour)

Written by: Mike Shaw

Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

It’s almost a decade to the day War Horse made its world premiere at the National Theatre (9 October 2007), and in that time, the show has become something of a national treasure.

Now touring the UK, leaving the West End has done nothing to alter War Horse’s sky-high production values. If anything, playing in a more intimate space gives the audience more appreciation of the size and power of the magnificent puppets.

Peter Becker as Friedrich in War Horse. Photo by Birgit Ralf Brinkhoff

Peter Becker as Friedrich in War Horse. Photo by Birgit Ralf Brinkhoff

It’s reasonable to leap straight into mentioning the famous horse puppets, because 10 years on, and even with repeated viewings, they still astonish.

Actors leap on and off the horses as if they were real flesh, blood and bone – a testament to the design and building of the creatures and the strength of the people working them.

You may not find yourself viewing them as real horses, but you will come to forget they are just a collection of sticks and hinges, and view them as characters in their own right, which is perhaps an even greater accolade.

The story follows a horse called Joey and his owner, a young lad from Devon called Albert. Albert raises Joey from a foal and forms a strong bond with the animal. When Joey is sold to the army and shipped to France to serve in battle, Joey lies about his age and enlists in the yeomanry, so he can track down his beloved horse.

War Horse was first a children’s book. It’s regularly used as a set text for exams, and as such has a huge number of schoolchildren that visit to help layer their understanding of the book. With that in mind, one mustn’t expect the sort of profundity offered by the likes of Oh, What A Lovely War! and Birdsong. However, War Horse is still very affecting and, at times, almost unbearably bleak.

Soldiers marching in War Horse

Photo by Birgit Ralf Brinkhoff

While most attention is lavished on the horses, one mustn’t overlook the human characters. Though many are inconsequential, there are exceptions. The stand-out (in terms of character and performance) is German soldier Friedrich Muller, played by Peter Becker. When Joey and another horse, Topthorne, fall into his hands, Muller gives the ‘enemy’ a humanity often missing from material covering either world war, by dedicating his war to caring for them while he waits for the time he is able to go home to his wife and daughter.

The ability of animals to restore man’s humanity is a thread that appears throughout the play, not least when Joey becomes tangled in barbed wire and two soldiers (one British, one German) put their guns down and, with a nod to the Christmas truces, help one another free the trapped horse.

As is the norm in British theatre, there is a handful of wandering accents: for some cast members, Devon appears to be somewhere just outside Manchester.

The sets are minimal and consist primarily of sketchbook images projected onto a screen above the stage, the screen looking like a strip of torn paper. The images are rough drawings of landscapes, battle scenes, explosions, and are the perfect counterpoint to the intricacy of the onstage action, allowing attention to be focused on the puppet and human performances.

At times, War Horse ventures into the avant-garde, and the result is awe-inspiring.

The onstage innovation extends beyond the animals, and some of the wider stagecraft is frankly incredible: a simple frame representing a German tank rumbles onto the stage; battle scenes are played out in slow motion, with horses and riders galloping across the field of war; an officer is hit by a giant, stylised bullet, and is blasted from his horse, carried into white light by unseen figures.

At times, War Horse ventures into the avant-garde, and the result is awe-inspiring.

Co-directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris have turned this story for children into a truly epic piece of theatre that cannot fail to strike an emotional chord.

War Horse is at the Marlowe Theatre until October 14, and returns 27 February – 16 March 2019.

Author: Mike Shaw

Founder and editor of The Void, among other things. Interested in movies, tech, theatre, comics, WWE and UFC. Follow him on Twitter at @mikeshaw101 or check out his site

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